The Will of the People – Part 2

MTA Chairman Joe Lhota, announcing winners of the MTA App Quest competition, insists he is not arrogant. Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

THE COMMUTE: Yesterday we discussed the role of the public in transit decision-making and their effectiveness. Today we focus on how well the MTA responds to its riders and who is to blame for the state of transit today.

MTA Transparency and Responsiveness

The MTA operates mostly in a vacuum, making its decisions behind closed doors, not having to justify its decisions. Despite claims of transparency, the MTA often does not provide back-up data for its conclusions, adequately explain its methodology, or justify conflicting arguments they may make. They present the data and conclusions and you must accept it because they are the “experts,” period. There is no discussion.

Clyde Haberman, in his New York Times piece, stated that an important party not represented at MTA / Union contract negotiations is a passenger representative. In an interview with City and State, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota acknowledges that the MTA has been accused of being arrogant and insists that he isn’t. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

CS: So how did the MTA get its poor reputation?
JL: I haven’t had enough time to do any diagnostic examination of why things have happened the way it is. But people have said the agency’s been arrogant. I’m not arrogant. Hopefully I’ll be able to project a face and an image to try to get around that stuff.

The way to attack the problem is not “to get around that stuff” but to attack the problem head on, like David Gunn attacked graffiti. What Lhota has to do is “do a diagnostic examination,” as he puts it, “of why things happened the way it is” and then make appropriate changes at the MTA so the impression of arrogance is changed. It won’t happen overnight, but only after the MTA proves that it can and does listen and keeps its word, which currently it often does not.

Why The MTA Needs To Listen More

In my column several weeks ago, I discussed how the MTA pretends to have all the answers, always finding excuses why not to implement suggestions from the public, how one department is reluctant to listen to ideas from other departments, and that much talent within the agency goes untapped. The public also has plenty of ideas that could benefit the MTA if they only had an open mind to listen instead of believing the public has nothing to offer.

Reminds me of when I made a suggestion to the New York City Transit Authority as a high school student in the late 1960s. The response I received from the public information officer at the time was: “Well, that sounds like a good idea, but I’m sure if there were any merit to it, we would have thought of it already.” Unfortunately, not much has changed since.

If Lhota is not arrogant himself, as he claims not to be, he has to make sure that his agency isn’t either. There is no shortage of ideas of how to improve the subways. Just look at all the suggestions for improvement Haberman received in the comments to his article in the Times. Unfortunately, many have given up on expressing their ideas directly to the MTA because they fear they will fall on deaf ears.

The MTA rarely listens to the public or to even to its own employees. If your supervisor does not agree with you, any ideas you have for improvements go no further. The only way to get around the MTA’s bureaucracy if you are an employee is through New York City Transit’s Employee Suggestion Program. In some instances employees are rewarded if their good suggestions save the MTA money. The rewards can be substantial. However, if the improvement only results in better customer service, and does not save money, the chances of the suggestion being accepted are slim, especially if the suggestion involves a department different from the one the employee works for or costs any money to implement no matter how minimal.

Departments can and often deny valid suggestions without performing honest evaluations and just provide excuses why a suggestion is not usable. The head of the program would have to be a vice president to have the authority to challenge rejections she knows are unfair. When I left the MTA seven years ago, the program was (and probably still is) headed by an analyst who is not even a manager. That has to change.

The appeal process to a rejection is a rubber stamp of the original rejection by the same person who initially reviewed it. Employees of rejected suggestions have also accused the MTA of implementing their suggestions a year or two later without giving the employee any credit or reward. Some departments are more arrogant than others and it is Lhota’s job to find out where the problems of arrogance are and to fix them since New York City Transit has not been able to accomplish this on their own.

Who Is To Blame For The State Of Transit Today And What Needs to Change?

You can place the blame on the politicians for not properly funding transit, the unions for not willing to change archaic work rules to give the MTA more flexibility (such as the ability to hire part-time bus drivers), and the public for not getting more involved, or you can blame the MTA for wasting money or not listening. The truth is that all must share the blame.

Ben Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas says that we need a mix of incremental and big ideas. “No one is calling for massive infrastructure investment on such a scale that would expand subway service as city planners once envisioned with the IND Second System.”

He is absolutely correct. What we are doing is pretending that Select Bus Service is an adequate substitute for rapid transit system expansion. It has its place, but a substitute it is not.

We will not have a top-notch mass transit system — one that goes everywhere it is needed — until we want to have one. In other words what is missing is the will. Adequate funding is certainly a very important aspect to improving mass transit but it is not the most important one. The most important aspect is the desire. When we get that desire to improve transit, we will find the funding. When I say “we,” I mean the MTA, the elected officials, the media, the unions, and the public.

Tomorrow: Why more money alone is not the answer and the need for change.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).